In Britain fifty years ago it remained a popular topic of conversation to muse upon how the people would have reacted had the Germans invaded in 1940. The consensus was that, unlike the inglorious French, most Britons would have resisted, and a street-by-street fight in London’s sprawling conurbation would have led to a long and bloody battle for the capital that the Germans would not necessarily have won: a sort of Stalingrad-on-Thames. It was recognized, however, that some people would have been only too glad to be obliging to the invader.
Certain events in Britain since mid-March, when a supposedly libertarian government imposed the most authoritarian restrictions on private life ever experienced in the country in peacetime, have brought the specter of the inner Nazi very much back into public consciousness. For example: a friend took his wife and daughter to Spain for a holiday, only to find while they were away that Britain had imposed a fourteen-day quarantine on those returning from there. A day or two later—they live in a crowded but fashionable part of London—their dog needed to answer an urgent call of nature. My friend, keeping well away from all other humans, sneaked out of the house with the dog so it could do what it had to. A neighbor with whom he had only the slightest acquaintance saw him, accosted him, and asked whether he had not just returned from a country deemed to be unclean. An attempt to explain was to no avail. My friend waited for the knock on the door from the police, but luckily it never came.
Matters might have been different during Britain’s period of total lockdown, from mid-March to late May, when one was allowed out of doors only if one had no symptoms of covid-19, and even then only to go shopping for food, or for a maximum of one hour a day to take exercise. Neo-fascist activity became promiscuous. People routinely informed on neighbors who they thought were breaking the rules, to the profound shock of most of their fellow citizens and their mouthpieces in the popular press. If the police spotted three people having a conversation, they broke it up. If they saw someone sitting on a park bench, the idler was moved on. People shouted at each other in supermarkets, even threatening violence against those they deemed were not “socially distancing” sufficiently (we were all told to keep two meters of distance from others, which, given the country has not adopted the metric system, was typical of the confusion the pandemic caused). In one especially preposterous incident, police went to a supermarket and tried to prevent people from buying non-essential goods, and sought to send them home. The police were soon told to clear off, since the permission to go to a food shop was never contingent on the shopper buying only essentials. The rules, however, were not clear, and they still aren’t.
Britain became two nations, composed of the urban captives and the rural semi-free. People living in what was already isolation, in the countryside, carried on mostly as normal. If they chose to walk their dogs three times a day, or stay out for two hours, there was seldom anyone around to report them. Such people were also luckier than most of their urban counterparts in that they tended to have larger houses and much larger gardens, so claustrophobia or the sense of going stir-crazy was rarely an issue. The weather in April and May was unusually fine, creating a sense of an extended holiday. In urban areas, where millions of Britons were confined in small apartments and modest houses with little or no private outdoor space, the curtain-twitchers had a field day. Anyone going out too much might well find himself or herself reported to the police. Busy roads were suddenly empty; anyone driving was liable to be stopped and quizzed about the need for the journey. For two and half months the government’s order was to stay at home and avoid others. But as in any Orwellian society, some were more equal than others when the rules came to be applied.
One of the highlights of lockdown for a generally bored public was the distasteful incident involving Dominic Cummings, the man who is tactfully called the Prime Minister’s “advisor” but who in fact does all the jobs that require the attention to detail and application that Boris Johnson lacks. Against all the rules, Cummings drove his wife and child to visit his family in the north of England, more than two hundred miles from London, and was spotted on a recreational visit to Barnard Castle, a picturesque small town in County Durham. Outrage exploded, not least from people whose relations were ill, dying, or had died and who had obeyed the rules and not visited them. One minister, morally unable to repel the barrage of abuse from his constituents, even resigned. Cummings made matters worse by claiming he had driven to the town to test his eyesight. This created the widespread recognition among voters that the country’s rulers thought they were contemptibly stupid. If the Johnson administration implodes, this incident will be cited as the first nail in its coffin, partly because of the naked hypocrisy, and partly because Johnson’s refusal to admit Cummings had done anything wrong exposed how utterly reliant he was on this unelected, unpopular, and unpleasant man.
Yet it was remarkable how readily the normally obstinate and individualistic British people accepted the need to be controlled in this way, and to tolerate the inevitable economic damage; but in this there were two nations again, the employed and the employers. For the former, being paid to stay at home in marvelous spring weather was something of a dream; for the latter, what began as a temporary interruption to their businesses soon took on the complexion of a death sentence, or something close to it. Shops, pubs, restaurants, clubs, cafes, theaters, concert-halls, gyms, and professional sports were all closed until early July. Schools were closed except for the children of “essential workers,” and universities went online. Public examinations in schools could not be taken, and when an attempt was made to apportion grades according not to past results and teachers’ recommendations, but via an algorithm, the whole system short-circuited and fueled outrage. Inevitably, the education secretary—one of the least educated and stupidest men in the government, which may be Johnson’s idea of a postmodern joke—had had five months to preempt these difficulties but did nothing. Equally inevitably, he did not resign, pouring further accelerant on the flames of public outrage that have steadily undermined faith and trust in the Johnson administration. For four months, the 90 percent of school-aged children educated by the British state had little or no education at all, with incalculable consequences.
During lockdown, less “essential” workers were told to work from home; and if that were impossible, they could be paid by the government 80 percent of their usual wage or salary to do nothing. The initial cost of this was estimated at £200 billion, and in late August it was announced that the national debt, on reaching £2 trillion, had passed one hundred percent of gross national product for only the second time in history. Money was also spent on vast emergency hospitals that were never used and, from early August, on subsidizing restaurant meals to avoid the hospitality sector imploding completely. The government managed to spend £252 million of taxpayers’ money on face masks that were deemed useless. No socialist government in Britain’s history ever spent money with such abandon; before too long, the slightest political difficulty was being “solved” by throwing money at it. No one had the bad taste to try to predict how this economic debauchery would be ended and reversed, and how the damage it has done would be put right.
Some people were restless about the restrictions, pointing out that most winters a flu epidemic kills thousands of mainly elderly people, or those with underlying health problems, and that the British economy was being sabotaged in an extreme socialist experiment mostly to extend by a few weeks the lives of a few tens of thousands who were going to die anyway. Others, though, adopted the attitude of severe paranoia about public health and hygiene that the government wanted them to have—not to preserve lives per se but to avoid the embarrassment of a collapse of an overloaded and already inefficient National Health Service. That was the root of the wave of officious policemen and people informing on their neighbors in a fashion of which Fidel Castro would have been proud.
At the end of July the government asked those who used to work in offices to resume doing so. Within a month, only a sixth of the workforce had taken any notice. The effect of home-working on British society has been profound, and its economic effect has sparked panic among ministers. In city centers that used to be populated by office workers, the shops, sandwich bars, pubs, cafes, and restaurants have shut down. Many may never reopen. The rental value of commercial property has plummeted. Public transport will have to be heavily subsidized if it is to survive. Computers and the internet mean that commuting as though it were still 1950 is in many cases entirely unnecessary: it is as if a secret has suddenly been let out. Where no public interface is necessary, work can be done from home. Meetings of various degrees of importance can be held via Zoom or Microsoft Teams, and important information can be sent via email. Thus leases on office space are not being renewed, or massive downsizing is taking place, with employees coming to a smaller office one or two days a week to keep in touch, and hot-desking, but otherwise working from their spare rooms. Some cities are turning into ghost towns.
Predictably, it has been the various manifestations of government panic that have caused much innocent humor, for if one does not find aspects of the present situation by which one can be amused, one might as well cut one’s wrists. In the depths of lockdown the government, acting on the evidence of what ministers pompously call “the science,” said that face masks were pointless for those going to the shops or for necessary workers on public transport, because they did not stop the infection spreading. Then, once infection rates plummeted, “the science” changed its mind, and ministers insisted first that people using public transport, and then anyone going into a shop or an enclosed public space such as a gallery or a museum, had to be masked. Then the travel industry received a broadside from the sudden and almost arbitrary imposition of quarantine restrictions on certain countries; one day wedding receptions were allowed, the next day they were not, and then they were allowed again. And within the United Kingdom, the mischievous and cynical first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, has been trying to wrong-foot her English counterpart (not difficult), while of course never admitting that it has been English taxpayers’ money that has subsidized Scotland’s precautions against the virus, or that, had it become independent (as Sturgeon campaigned for it to do in 2014), it would be a failed state by now.
But of course the British are also famed for muddling through, and only achieving the right result in the end by accident. It is far from certain that will happen in this case. The idea of being paid to do nothing was too attractive for too many Britons, not least because of the illusion they had that someone else was picking up the tab. A government that terrified people about the virus in order to avoid political embarrassment has, so far, found no way of de-terrifying them sufficiently to get them back to normal working. It may take years for the country’s economy to recover its equilibrium, and might require a whole economic restructuring. Above all, a people who were supposed to be wary of authority and fiercely independent have shown they are all too easily corralled and infantilized. The end of this unhappy interlude in the Island Story is still not in sight, and its psychological and ideological scars will linger long after the last disposable face-mask has been chucked in the bin.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 2, on page 35
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